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"That was kinda scary"
For an iniquitous phase of her past Fort Worth was — at least in part — decadently wicked and not secretly corrupt. Such an assertion, perhaps, would not be too surprising to folks reading of her wild and woolly Old West upbringing. Whatever the village's offhandedly awarded moniker, "Where the West Begins" or simply "Cowtown," the North Texas settlement along the banks of the Trinity River was tough ground to cover. Fort Worth was the county seat of Tarrant County, a sprawling piece of real-estate covering near 900 sq. miles and formally surveyed during 1849. The new county was officially organized the following year on 5 August 1850 and then, ten years later, the city captured shiretown honors, wresting them away from Birdville during a heated electoral contest.
From the blood and thunder perspective Fort Worth and Tarrant County was especially rich. The second and fourth sheriff, John B. York, was mortally stabbed and shot during a dustup with lawyer Archibald Young "Arch" Fowler and his teenaged nephew Willie (?), on the twenty-fourth day of August 1861. During labor strife revolving around strikers and the Missouri Pacific Railroad, a special deputy for Tarrant County, Richard W. "Dick" Townsend, was fatally gunned down while his partners of that disastrous day, Charles Sneed and John J. Fulford, were lucky to be alive but wounded, the first in the face, the latter by bullets tearing into both legs. City policeman Christopher Columbus Fitzgerald was fatally shot while trying to restore sanity to the madness two fighting adversaries were inflicting on each other during that sweltering day in August 1877. And again in August, but a couple of years later, Deputy City Marshal George H. White was shotgunned to death by the family of George Alford as he was transporting his prisoner back to the city lockup subsequent to an arrest in Arlington, the budding suburban community just east of downtown Fort Worth. Before he went down in that hail-fire of buckshot, Officer White managed to kill one ambusher and wound another. But a two-year veteran of the Fort Worth PD, C. Lee Waller, was bushwhacked as he and his partner foot-patrolled in the vicinity of Twelfth and Rusk Streets in Fort Worth. Wearing a lawman's gleaming badge was, at best honorable, at worst affording a shiny target. And probably the best known of all — especially for aficionados of the so-called Wild West's gunfighter era — was the very real and somewhat questionable killing of Timothy Isaiah "Longhair Jim" Courtright (carrying a deputy's commission) by the well-known gambler and gunman Luke Short on the boardwalk in front of Fort Worth's notorious White Elephant Saloon. Residents of Fort Worth and Tarrant County could, if they wanted to, legitimately boast of real tough nineteenth-century doings.
Lest there be any undue and untrue assertion that Fort Worth and Tarrant County garnered unto themselves the sole reputation for nineteenth-century North Texas badness, one only has to move east a few miles to burgeoning Dallas and Dallas County. Just for the 1890s Dallas area lawmen paid the ultimate price, as five brothers of the badge mortally succumbed to gunfire during the decade. Provably so, Dallas County's legally mandated hangings and extra-legal lynching are fodder enough for a book-length labor. But, for the bona fide high drama and for relevance to the story in hand, it would be twentieth-century malice and murders that pushes the story and sparks the burning interests of a young Texas man that would be facing vacillating career choices on the pages of life's timelessly turning calendar.
Tarrant County's immediate neighbor to the north is Denton County, founded and organized even four years earlier. Subject to the typically heated rivalries between fledgling communities, the township of Denton ultimately emerged as the county seat of local home-rule government. As the crow flies it's not too far north of Denton to the tiny hamlet of Green Valley. And it was there that the Sarepta, Webster Parish, Louisiana-born William Hershel Dean, twenty-two, and his eighteen-year-old wife Juanita Lucille (Day) Dean, a native of McKinney, Collin County, Texas, made their home. Mr. Dean was an accomplished painter, specifically of airplanes and airplane parts, an in-demand skillfulness not commonly found in those hardworking fellows contracting to paint business houses and barns. Incredibly Mr. Dean was a dually accomplished specialist. He, too, would become an expert at proficiently sealing the fuel tanks of the nation's WWII aircraft, in due time repairing fissures from the inside out, particularly for the America's flight-line of B-24 and B-36 bombers. Mrs. Dean had proficiently developed secretarial skills in accord with her pre-pregnancy employment at an insurance agency. Everyday life was good in North Texas before WWII and the Deans were a happy couple.
Blissful as they were, 16 June 1937 would be a good day but a hard day. During the wee morning hours, before sunrise, Juanita Dean's labor pains commenced. The delivery would not be easy. Whether notified by a hastened party-line telephone call or responding to a hurried nighttime knock at their residence's door is — at this point not now known and is truly irrelevant. The medical practitioners, a father and son physician team, were onsite at the Dean household, tending to Juanita who was undergoing a most difficult delivery. One doctor wanted to write the childbirth off as a heartbreaking but impossible task, the other rebuffed giving up — thankfully! At eight o'clock in the morning, in that little rural home, a brown-eyed bouncing baby boy cried his way into the world: Jack O'Day Dean had arrived.
Understandably, from the biographic standpoint, painstakingly following — or trying to — each and every footstep toddler Jack Dean made before he could run, hop, skip, and jump is not viable and, if it were otherwise doable, extraneous for advancing his story. Schoolboy Jack Dean learned well — or well enough — the early-day classroom lessons of literacy and reckoning with numbers, the necessary exercises of adding and subtracting; counting the black spots on firehouse Dalmatians and tallying how many sheep were yet in the farmer's pen if one slipped through the wire-fence. Though it would not register at the time, but would later beneficially impact his life, Jack's classmates were a hodgepodge, a culturally diverse lot. Like most carefree kiddos romping and stomping and playing tag or dodge ball or Red Rover, they were innocently colorblind to certain social issues plaguing grownups. Santa Claus came once a year. Jack Dean dressed properly for Easter Sunday — mama Dean made sure of that. Jack Dean's early boyhood, happily, was normal.
Though his memories are understandably somewhat hazy, eight-year-old Jack Dean did accompany his parents on an out-of-state trip. A private contractor had a job for his daddy at Allentown, on the eastern side of Pennsylvania. Thankfully and by design, the sojourn to the Keystone State was of short duration — June through August — and Jack Dean's third grade school year was not handicapped. Back in the Lone Star State, the Dean family finally settled at Fort Worth, the spot Jack Dean would remember best and the place he would call home.
There really is little doubt that by the time Jack Dean was a Fort Worth student he was to some degree aware at least subliminally of the gangster goings-on vilely affecting the city. At mid-century, Fort Worth was Mecca for chaos. Cowtown was and had always been home to a conglomeration of double-crossing underworld characters. Bloodshed makes its own bed in history. Local histories, newspapers, and neighborhood gossip were rife with stories about gambling and corruption and prostitution, car-bomb murders, thoroughly dead bodies pulled from Lake Worth, after-hours drinking emporiums, and particular local lawmen looking the other way — for pay. Representing lawfulness — at least on the surface for public consumption — the Tarrant County Grand Jury was rather active for awhile during the 1940s-50s. And so were the hired killers. While Jack Dean had been but an innocent first-grade schoolboy, an ex-convict from Oklahoma, Ray Sellers, Clyde Barrow's former brother-in-law, was filled full of smoking hot lead and pitilessly dumped from a car, but he had slyly opted not to finger his assailant before giving up the ghost. Area police character James B. "Red" Cavanaugh disappeared — for keeps. While the young and innocent Jack Dean was yet a public school student, Lon Holley took two to the back of the head and died slumped over the steering-wheel of his late-model roadster, murdered before he could cut a plea-bargain deal and snitch others into Huntsville's electric chair for a West Texas murder or clear police books for the bank robbery below Waco at Rosebud, Falls County. Que Robert Miller, ex-sheriff of Foard County at the southeastern edge of the Texas Panhandle and an ex-convict, bought the farm, so to speak, a .45 slug to the back of his head. Then there was that horrific explosion that set the towns of Fort Worth and Dallas agog, the one wherein Texas gangster Herbert "The Cat" Noble's wife was accidently blown to smithereens when she turned the ignition switch on her husband's car that twenty-ninth day of November 1949. And before year's end, Hollis DeLois "Lois" Green, a big-time gangster and murderer, a "desperate and depraved thug" and "really bad actor" purportedly with more than twenty kills on his notch-stick, was put under by multiple shotgun blasts in the parking lot of a Dallas nightspot, the Sky Vu Club, — the buckshot bought sweet revenge and eternal silence. Schoolboy Jack Dean, though not particularly overly interested in such gangster goings on in North Texas at the time, was not immune to the widespread media reports and hearing grownups rattle about them.
Less than a year later, as Jack Dean was yet embarking on that journey to adulthood, he hazily recalls Fort Worth's next headlining newspaper copy. Gangsterdom's earthquake had erupted. Nelson Harris and his pregnant wife, Juanita, had been sent henceforth to mark their place in the hereafter, thanks to the expertise of a "nitro man," a shadowy guy adept at rigging automobiles with lethal charges of nitroglycerin. Headline copy carried the news. Radios and televisions blared the, by now, seemingly habitual Fort Worth/Dallas area story. But the wholesale killing was far from over. The failed attempts on gangster Herbert Noble's life were near habitual headlines, so much so that the May 14, 1951, issue of Life Magazine, with photos, ran their underworld feature: "Ex-Gambler Has More Lives Than a Cat." Shortly, relatively speaking, Herbert Noble reached into to his mailbox, not knowing that underneath the surrounding ground, well, it had been "wired." Presumably he never heard the explosion as his body parts shredded into little and nearly unrecognizable pieces of meat, bone, and gristle. Not surprisingly Texas Rangers responded to the blood-spattered crime scene, a fact not lost on ravenous newsmen or naive kiddos always curious about such ghoulish goings-on. Jack Dean was, at the time, an inquisitive fourteen-year-old. And that very same volatile month, August 1951, Fort Worth resident James Clyde "Jim" Thomas, an ex-convict having Nebraska and Texas prison time everlastingly inked on his lengthy rap sheet, also possessed a somewhat charming and dashing, but deceiving demeanor: "Police, however, saw him as half of the team that killed Lon Holley and Que Miller, as well as a strong suspect in the Nelson Harris bombing." In due course the seemingly but deceptively mild-mannered Jim Thomas was mortally cut down at Durant, Oklahoma, by two shotgun blasts fired by one Hubert Deere, one to the lower stomach, the other below the beltline — to his groin.
Though a direct tie to Jack Dean's story is not there, a mention of Tarrant County's posh dinning room, ornate gaming hall, and upscale whorehouse is not altogether cheap or tactless. When contrasted with the seedy side of Fort Worth's underworld society and its rough-edged environs it will, indeed, play into Jack Dean's true-life narrative. Any voyeuristic peek at the Fort Worth area with respect to it being a wide-open paradise for high-rollers and hedonists must include mention of the Top O'Hill Terrace in nearby Arlington. Though the signature activity of Top O'Hill Terrace was an under-the-table business, the top side was lavishly fixed, at least one penman so declares:
As the name implies, it was situated on the top of a hill, and it was known not only for its exclusiveness but also for the luxury of its appointments. The floors were covered with costly rugs and lighting was provided by elegant chandeliers. ... Fred Browning, saw to it that dinner guests were provided with sterling silver flatware, that they ate off priceless china and drank from imported crystal.
Fred Browning's entertainment venue was perhaps Fort Worth's most unguarded secret, though real guards stood as sentinels cautiously eyeing potential players and good-timing gals as they passed through five locked doorways. Access was by invitation — no strangers, no Rangers. According to an adroit and academic chronicler, basing his assessment on the knowledge of someone in the know, it is explicitly proffered "that it was not unusual for half a million dollars to change hands at Top O'Hill Terrace on a single good weekend during the horse racing season" at nearby Arlington Downs. By any man's or woman's standard Top O'Hill Terrace was, before Las Vegas grabbed the spotlight, the elite's playground. But a circumspect check of the guest list from a blend of sources reveals that such celebrated and high-profile personalities as Don Ameche, Gene Autry, Marlene Dietrich, Tommy Dorsey, W.C. Fields, Benny Goodman, Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes, H.L. Hunt, Buster Keaton, Heddy Lamarr, Dean Martin, Tom Mix, Sally Rand, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, W.T. Waggoner, and Mae West, enjoyably sampled the fare at Fred Browning's luxurious nightspot and casino. And, of course, that's not counting the well-known Fort Worth/Dallas crowd of risk-taking underworld bettors and bribers, cardsharps and cheats, conmen and killers.
Not surprisingly, with his thumb in so many lucratively illicit pies, area gambler, racketeer, and rounder Lester Ben "Benny" Binion had a major behind-the-scenes slice of the action. For awhile the glitter and glamour and greenbacks slyly blinded police notice — and engagement. After clearing security, guests could participate in games of chance like roulette, blackjack, craps, or voraciously feed one-arm bandits coins to their heart's content — or the money ran out. Naturally, the big moneyed players had a liberal line of credit.
At least one Texas Ranger captain was purportedly dragging his feet and fiddling with excuses for not shutting down the Top O'Hill Terrace. Ultimately, though, it would be the Texas Rangers shutting down the illicit gaming operation with a triumphant raid captained by the now somewhat legendary Manuel Terrazas "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas on Sunday night, 10 August 1947. Sneaking up on the backside of the casino, Texas Rangers pre-positioned themselves, and were successful when bewildered patrons — flushed like a covey of quail from the front side — vainly tried to flee through the not so hush-hush escape tunnel, a landmark of trickery existing to this very day. Though it necessitates that niggling backwards chronological peek, the notable gambling raid had been of no concern or curiosity for Jack Dean. He had been, at that time, yet a fun-lovin' schoolboy more interested in playing cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and owning his very own pocket knife before the upcoming academic year had kicked-off at the Denver Avenue Elementary School.
Being handed ownership of a firearm was a rite of passage for a boy growing up in Texas. Such parental confidence moved them to big boy status, then onto the march leading to maturity. At about age ten or eleven Jack Dean's grandfather on his mothers' side, Charley Day, gave young Jack a shotgun and, as it turned out, his very first gun-toting job. The assignment was simple, the pay acceptable. At granddad's farm near Pilot Point northeast of Green Valley, his chest thumping with pride, Jack Dean was to be paid bounty money; $1.00 for every varmint he sent scampering to the hereafter and terminally out of the fruitful garden plot. Visits to the farm, now were more fun than ever before. The reality check is measurable, he was tramping toward manhood, the jingling coins in his blue denim pockets from dispatching pests, well, that total never really amount to too very much, but the grown-up type challenge was what, in the end, really mattered.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Old Riot, New Ranger"
Copyright © 2018 Bob Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface & Acknowledgments,
1 "That was kinda scary",
2 "All these beautiful trees",
3 "I have no right to ask",
Photo Gallery 1,
4 "Good image with good citizens",
5 "Cocked and locked",
6 "Stern but friendly",
Photo Gallery 2,
7 "Lead will get your attention",
8 "I located Harrelson's pistol",
9 "Just handle it",
10 "A contract-assigned assassination",
11 "You're lucky to be alive",
Photo Gallery 3,
12 "Baby rattles and beef",
13 "No neophyte at prison life",
14 "They was laws to me",
15 "I'll buy you a beer",
Photo Gallery 4,